Fragments shorn up against our ruin: Film Socialisme

Like most of Jean-Luc Godard’s work, Film Socialisme mixes travelogue, agitprop, family drama, and a fair amount of doggerel. Evaluating it in the traditional sense would flummox anyone looking for a linear narrative, which Godard has eschewed since the sixties anyway. What he traffics in now is what T.S. Eliot called a “heap of broken images,” what Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum called, in a wondrous and thorough discussion of the film, a ruin:

When one thinks of a film by Resnais or Kubrick, for instance, one imagines a solid construction. But from an architectural standpoint, Godard’s films are phantom structures with missing doorways and unfinished walls, moss-covered stairways and half-assembled plumbing. To a great extent, this is deliberate, of course. In his later films, Godard takes strands of narrative and builds over and under them, extends or atomizes certain motifs to the point where they become unrecognizable as elements of one single narrative.

The biggest chunks of flotsam in Film Socialisme: a collection of snippets, some no more than seconds long, of life on a cruise ship, shot on high definition video and cellphone cameras and, in the case of a shot of a disco, intentionally terrible sound, as if the camera were in a reveler’s purse (“as if” no – it no doubt was); the rift between parents and children occasioned by what I think is the sale of a gas station, a rift deepened by the interference of two reporters; and a twenty-minute sequence in which quotes from the likes of Gershom Scholem, glimpses of Palestine, footage of marching soldiers, and other fripperies do their damnest not to cohere.

If Film Socialisme boasts one pillar that survives the ruin, it’s Godard’s masterly eye for the rudiments of HD photography. Postcards and travel brochures don’t boast the rich blues and splashes of orange that are like aureoles around the ship. The film makes the best case yet for the aesthetic possibilities of HD. And the eighty-year-old Godard can show rivulets of passion coursing between people even when they’re mere trickles. A wordless depiction of a son rubbing his mother’s body as she washes the sink (see photo above) is as powerful a demonstration of love as any between Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life.

If this review sounds tentative, blame my suspicion of Godard and the “ideas” his fans think the films explain. I liked bits of In Praise of Love and most of Notre Musique, but you can fit the ideas worth discussing on the head of a pin. I don’t think Film Socialisme depicts The End of Europe unless you’re the sort of person for whom films are “about” this or that. More than Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, or Truffaut, Godard likes to make movies in which he can stick his favorite political and literary allusions and see if anyone appreciates the makeshift correspondences. The director who devoted a few minutes to a character in Weekend reciting Emily Bronte still has a weakness for gaucheries like the filling station girl reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions; it’s too pat a joke, and the sort of joke amusing to a person who hasn’t read the novel. This section piles allusion on allusion: a donkey out of Bresson’s Mouchette, a llama that the Buñuel of The Phantom of Liberty would have treated to a ravishing closeup.  Other problems arise. When, wreathed by a sky as motley as the aurora borealis, a gaunt man with Eurofringe hair remarks  off-camera that he thinks AIDS was created by white  guys like him while a chicly dressed black women stands motionless, how are we supposed to react? Or to the casual mention of phrases like “right of return” popping up in the mouths of people who wouldn’t use them? Or the morose young woman sharing this sparkling insight with a wizened companion: “They say we can only compare what is comparable . In fact, we can only compare what is incomparable, not comparable,” which is at least an improvement over “I don’t want to die before I’ve see the words  Russia and Happiness attached like two belt buckles.”  Context matters: I am reasonably confident that Godard purloined these lines from a Stalin-era play. But if Film Socialisme has any “point,” it is demonstrating how a director can populate his own context with the detritus of two hundred years of European cultural history. The lack of affect is the point. Call it the “Revolution #9” approach to filmmaking.

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